Q&A: Tourism and rural affairs minster Fergus Ewing on supporting the tourism sector, a no-deal Brexit, and practising Jazz piano in lockdown
Apart from coronavirus, what is the most significant thing that has happened within your portfolio area over the last year?
It’s hard to pick just one significant event, especially when I manage such a varied portfolio. On the Rural Economy side, securing £160m in convergence funding and a further £25.7m of funding in both 2020/21 and 2021/22 through the Bew Review was a huge achievement.
I am proud that we won the debate over where the UK’s CAP convergence funding belonged. We all knew it was here in Scotland. It took a huge team effort to win this case and secure the funding.
It is also a matter of huge pride for me that my officials were able to work incredibly quickly to ensure the first tranche of convergence funding made its way into the rural economy so promptly. Money that took over six years to win back was paid out to farmers and crofters across Scotland in less than six months. This was especially tough given my officials were going through considerable upheaval of their own and adjusting to working at home.
Regarding tourism, not long before we had to go into lockdown the First Minister launched the new Tourism Strategy at the Scottish Tourism Alliance conference in Glasgow. The Tourism Strategy Scotland Outlook 2030 aims to position Scotland as the leader in 21st century tourism.
The previous strategy focused on supporting industry and business. However, last year it was decided a new model for the sector was required, which promoted a more collaborative and inclusive approach between agencies and the private sector.
For Scotland to lead in 21st century tourism, we need to recognise the constantly changing environment and address the issues affecting the industry internationally, including climate change concerns, sustainability and making tourism work better for communities.
Even with the arrival of COVID-19, we’re still working closely with industry to respond positively to the challenges presented and to continue the implementation of the new strategy. I’m confident it will play a crucial role in guiding the strengthening of Scotland’s tourism industry in the coming months.
According to figures from Visit Britain, there will be 22 million fewer visitors to the UK this year. How will Scotland’s tourism industry recover from such an immediate and all-encompassing loss of business, and is there a need for a new tourism campaign to reinvigorate interest in the industry?
We’re doing everything in our power to support the industry through this incredibly tough time.
The Scottish Government took immediate steps to address the financial impact of COVID-19 and our total package of support now totals over £2.3bn. This includes almost £900m of non-domestic rates relief, a £1.3bn business grants scheme and a £145m package of targeted support for SMEs and the self-employed.
We know that tourism and hospitality businesses have been particularly hard hit, so we introduced our £30m Creative, Tourism and Hospitality Enterprises Hardship Fund to support those businesses not in receipt of other grant funding, and also a £120m Pivotal Enterprise Recovery Fund to recognise the industry’s importance to particular areas. We also introduced a fund of up to £3m to support those B&Bs with no business bank account.
We also consistently pressed the UK Government for a reduction in high VAT rates for the industry, which thankfully they listened to. Many businesses will benefit from this.
However, it is clear the sector needs longer term support, particularly through the winter season. This is why I will continue to argue the case for an extension to the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme.
Aside from financial support, I also chair the new Scottish Tourism Recovery Taskforce with Business Minister Jamie Hepburn. We’re joined by over 30 members of the sector to look at stimulating demand, investment, the development of the workforce and the support measures needed to help businesses recover.
Whilst that work is being undertaken, VisitScotland has launched a new £3m marketing campaign aiming at promoting the staycation market and encouraging Scots to holiday here in Scotland – we certainly all have a role to play in supporting the recovery of tourism and thankfully in Scotland we are spoiled for choice!
Many rural communities in Scotland depend on tourism but will also be worried about the potential for visitors to spread coronavirus and put vulnerable people at risk. How do you manage that tension?
Scotland has always been a warm and welcoming country, that will never change. When it is safe for visitors to return, they will be welcomed here with open arms. However, in the current climate it is of course understandable that some people will be feeling anxious.
The sector has worked extremely hard to prepare for reopening and there is stringent guidance in place to ensure businesses can operate safely, protecting both their staff and their customers, as well as local communities. There is guidance for the public too - we all have a responsibility to enjoy tourism safely and respectfully.
There are a series of groups working on community engagement. VisitScotland is continuously listening and engaging with people across the country to build confidence and addressing concerns about the sector restarting. Indeed I have personally been involved in many of these discussions.
We have also been publishing clear and effective communication via our Scottish Rural Network, for example there is information on the route map phases, mobile testing and guidance specific to certain sectors.
The Rural Economy and Communities COVID-19 Stakeholder Group have also done a great job of listening to different groups and ensuring their concerns are being fed back to the appropriate policy areas to work on.
Only by working together will we get through this pandemic.
How worried are you by the prospect of a no deal Brexit, and what would it mean for your brief?
I’ve been clear, leaving the EU, particularly with no-deal as is increasingly likely, will be catastrophic for the rural economy – every single part of it will be adversely impacted and harmed by Brexit. Research shows that remote rural and island communities are most vulnerable to those effects. That is real people’s livelihoods and lives which will be harmed by the pursuit of Brexit at all costs and no matter the consequences.
We’re going through considerable change as a result of COVID-19, we do not need the further instability that Brexit provides. A possible no-deal Brexit generates unnecessary uncertainty, especially in our planning for future exports, border control points, trade with Northern Ireland, produce standards and it presents considerable staffing issues for both tourism and the rural economy.
There are still so many unanswered questions – not least in relation to how the Northern Ireland Protocol will affect the flow of goods and services between Scotland and Northern Ireland and indeed Ireland. So, I am extremely worried and will continue to do all I can to raise these concerns with UK Ministers, to get the solutions we need, and for the UK Government to mitigate some of the most disastrous potential consequences.
What will COVID mean for agriculture in Scotland?
Food production – the actual farming and producing of food, as well as the supply industries and sectors which support that, as well as the processing and manufacturing activity – largely continued throughout the pandemic.I’m extremely grateful to our hardworking farmers and crofters who have continued to work throughout the crisis, as have the key workers in the supply chains.
The COVID-19 pandemic signalled two things quite strongly – the vulnerability of global supply chains for food and other essential products, like timber for pallets for transporting medical supplies and food, but also the resilience of our food sector.
The initial panic buying and the disruption of lockdown itself altered supply chains but overall our food system has remained resilient, not least because producers and suppliers adapted quickly. While there are challenges we must learn from – some of our concerns around disruption from Brexit are largely similar to what we experienced with COVID-19, especially for the fabulous food produce that is largely dependent on export markets – there are also opportunities to build on. Consumers also adapted. Many people turned to online purchasing to find local and independent suppliers, and we need to give people more ways to enjoy locally sourced, locally produced food.
That in turn will help create more innovation and development of business and job opportunities right through agriculture and the wider food and drink industry, but also in aquaculture and in forestry. These are some of the skills we will want to provide for as part of our green recovery,
Other than seeing friends and family, what did you miss most during lockdown OR what did you most look forward to doing after lockdown was lifted?
I have definitely missed going out to cafes and restaurants and enjoying Scotland’s warm hospitality. However, it has been excellent to see how many businesses adapted during lockdown. Whether providing chef-quality dining at home, or the many delivery boxes filled with local produce, it shows the creativity and enthusiasm inherent in our hospitality and food sectors and how they really are at the heart of our communities. I hope all those businesses continue to provide the “at-home” and online operations. We want people to love living locally as it will help keep us all safe and help us beat the virus.
If you had to spend lockdown with one other member of the cabinet, who would it be and why?
If I’m allowed I’d pick Ivan McKee because he plays jazz saxophone and I’d try to accompany him on the piano - as I’ve got a bit more practice in during lockdown than I normally can manage!